02 February 2001
Help! Is There an Engineer in the House?
by Ed Ross
The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything. -Josef Stalin
As I write this, it's 13 December 2000, the presidential election is finally over, and George Bush has won. By the time you read this, he'll have been sworn in.
The Supreme Court Justices have decided the election. Throughout the postelection contest, polls told us that the people didn't want judges to decide. If not judges, though, who should decide? If judges, which ones? Do we want politicians, such as state legislators?
The people in Florida? They already voted. The question is, for whom did they vote?
TV media? Their idea is to create drama by putting together people who disagree on everything. It becomes like a World Wrestling Federation match. The rules of conflict seem to be that one or more of them has to be a total idiot.
Print media is slightly better. I suspect that the writers were afraid the election would be decided before their articles were printed, so they didn't bother to do any meaningful research.
To find any articles that are thoughtful, competent, and impartial on the subject of the voting machines, I had to go back to before the millennium ballot crisis. I did some library research and found an excellent article, "Big Business in Ballots," in The Atlantic in 1984, written by its future managing editor, Cullen Murphy (he also writes the text for the Prince Valiant comic strip).
He said, "On the whole, punch-card systems work pretty well, although new voters sometimes have trouble figuring out just how to use them. One advantage that punch-card systems have over lever machines is that they leave an 'audit trail.' That is, the actual ballots can be counted, or recounted, by hand. Sometimes they have to be."
It seems to me the situation this year bears a lot of similarity to an unexpected tornado or the Pearl Harbor attack. We should have anticipated that, sooner or later, something like this would occur. In 1984, electronic systems were less advanced. Today, we have ATMs that routinely provide confirmation, accuracy, privacy, and rapid response. They seem to never make a mistake. They have to be virtually foolproof. If they give you too little, you'll blow your top. If they give you too much, the bank goes broke.
We also have money changers. You put a bill in the slot; the machine chews it for a moment. Then it makes change or else gives the bill back because it has been conservatively designed with a failsafe to guard against accepting counterfeit money. It also throws out a lot of good money. No great harm is usually done. You can try again or use another bill.
A voting machine should be designed to record the vote correctly. As professor of information technology Rebecca Mercuri said in 1998, "If banking [ATMs] can record data, disburse money, and provide a paper receipt, so can computerized voting machines. . . . [This] would eliminate the problems associated . . . with punch cards where cards are improperly punched."
The punch-card voting machine, like the bill changer, throws out what it doesn't recognize. Unlike the money changer, it doesn't have to return your vote. If the ballot is promptly examined at the voting location, it can be returned to the voter for rework, just as the money changer returns your bill. If not, it's sent to a central vote-tabulating machine. The resulting bias in punched-card sensing is in favor of throwing out the ballot, not because this is a desirable result but because it's easier to sense holes than dimples.
I find it difficult to imagine the inventor wouldn't have preferred to count everything. The idea-advanced by those who didn't want the ballots counted manually-that many voters started to punch a hole for a presidential candidate but decided not to vote after all, got me thinking. How often have I pushed an elevator button and then decided I didn't want to use the elevator after all? I'm sure I don't do this as a regular practice.
James Baker said machines are more "accurate" than manual counting because human judgment isn't involved. He should have said "impartial." As any mechanic knows, automated machines with a resolution of 0.1 aren't more accurate than manual inspection procedures, which can be more accurate by orders of magnitude.
So who should decide how votes should be counted? Well, what is a voting machine? Is it a machine?
Of course it is. It's in the province of engineers! If we were considering a bridge, would we call in engineers? We'd better, because if politicians and judges built the bridges, they'd be swimming across the Potomac to get to Virginia. The difference between law and science is that there are no absolute truths in the law. Lawyers say, "Justice is a concept only laypeople use." In science and engineering, when a bridge collapses, it falls down for engineers and laypeople alike.
I hope Congress can create an independent agency to recommend and supervise election procedures. It should be insulated from politics, as is the Federal Reserve Board, but it should be run by engineers instead of bankers.
An alternative would be to do as Stalin would have done. Appoint a voting commissar, and send the engineers to Siberia. Brrr! MC
Edward A. Ross is president of Ross Associates in Needham, Mass., and author of The Ross Guide to the Motion Control Industry. Contact Ed at (781) 449-5123; fax: (781) 449-2942.